Oxford and its coffee: An immortal love affair

Recently, the Vaults and Garden café was given notice by the Parochial Church Council of the University’s St Mary’s Church to close so the Church can renovate. Perhaps, in the grand scheme of Oxford’s history and economy, the potential closure would’ve only been a footnote, but within four days, a petition to save the café launched by its customers has gained over 4000 signatures. And while Vaults and Garden is only one of the many cafés in Oxford, the uproar and outpouring of public sentiment evidences just how greatly the Oxford populace loves them.

When someone mentions Oxford, we might immediately conjure up images of the Radcliffe Camera (affectionately, the Rad Cam), the stairs in Christ Church where the Hogwarts first-years stood, or the glorious rowing. But, we must not forget the source that seems to keep all the students alive, awake, and functional: coffee, and cafés. 

“Hold on, I can’t think properly without my morning cup of coffee”, or “Let’s meet up for a cup of coffee”, and many other such phrases have, long ago, become staples in our vocabulary and vernacular. Of course, cafés do not only cater to students. Whether a college café or one along the High Street, it would not surprise anyone to see townsfolk and tourists enjoying a cappuccino and soaking in the scenery. In fact, England’s (allegedly) oldest cafés are almost all from Oxford: The Grand Café established in 1650; Queen’s Lane Coffee House in 1654. Evidently, Oxford has been surviving on coffee for almost 400 years.

Yet it would be remiss to think that this dependency is solely one way. In the case of the potential closure of Vaults and Garden, Will Pouget, the café owner, spoke about the financial fallout: having to dismiss 70 employees within the next three months (the time given by the Church) would result in financial liability of £100,000. In 2018, the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) found that Brits drink 95 million cups of coffee a day, and now, the number still rises. In the same year, the Office for National Statistics found that the coffee business has also grown steadily in Oxford, from 55 businesses in 2010 to 80 in 2018. Finally, Oxford City Council summarised that Oxford attracts more than 7 million visitors per year, generating more than £800 million in income for local businesses. 

These seem like – and are – impressive figures. But, what does this mean? Considering Oxford’s unique position within the UK’s “Golden Triangle”, the city’s primary economic output comes from education, publication, manufacturing, and other professional industries. So, while tourism is significant, the tertiary education and manufacturing sectors reign fiscally supreme (think of how many MINIs are driven everywhere). However, with how long coffee has been around in Oxford, its role has long transcended beyond pure economics and business.

…coffee houses here don’t only offer drinks and pastries, but also a glimpse into the historically inaccessible world of academia. 

Before Oxford, I wasn’t too big of a coffee drinker. Sure, I too would relish in its warm embrace during the cold winter months, but never had I found it an indispensable necessity. However, something changed when I, along with every other new student, was handed café vouchers and encouraged to purchase keep cups during Freshers’ Week. Now, subconsciously, I find myself wandering towards Pembroke’s Farthings Café whenever I need to escape from my reading list; and paying a visit to G&D’s or Taylor’s is little more than routine. Of course, we don’t only drink coffee for the energy boost or the warmth it gives – coffees and cafés serve as a place where students can meet friends, relax, date, and escape from the burden of essays, problem sheets, and week five blues. 

Indeed, for almost 400 years, the marriage between Oxford and its cafés and coffees has run smoothly in the background. Generations of patrons have met in coffee houses to socialise and discuss common matters of interest (it was said that Christopher Wren, the famed architect, was a frequent visitor to the Queen’s Lane Coffee House), leading to coffee houses and cafés gaining the name “penny universities”. Clearly, with Oxford’s leading role in research, education and its high concentration of academics, coffee houses here don’t only offer drinks and pastries, but also a glimpse into the historically inaccessible world of academia. 

“The Vaults and Garden café … has become a city institution over the last 20 years”, were some of the first words written in the petition to save the café. Undoubtedly, visiting the myriad of cafés, coffee houses, and other eateries that make up the city’s social, cultural, and economic landscape have long become a central part of the Oxford lifestyle. As such, the wealth of signatures on the petition to “savethevaults” represents not only a desire to save a beloved café, but also a reluctance to let go of an integral part of the Oxford identity.

Image credit: via Tara Earley.

Image description: A shot of the Vaults and Garden café in Radcliffe Square, with the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in the background.